Setting new priorities for public education

Public Education’s Opportunity To Shift Course

By | Allan Tellis, Chief Writer, Denver

                Traditional educational dynamics have had to be reimagined during the nation’s struggle with COVID-19. The common educational experience has been profoundly altered by new norms given the regulations required when schools attempted to keep learning happening during a pandemic. Schools have had to fundamentally reimagine the foundational protocols of basic school functions. Quickly, educational institutions have had to provide access to quality education in a variety of ways, and many of those new strategies do not involve students physically attending school. The consequences of the shift have been vast, and the shift has undoubtedly led many to stress just how urgent an overhaul of the educational system has been and continues to be. Trying, and oftentimes failing, to meet students’ needs has highlighted the rigidness of our educational structure. 

Despite the novelty of the coronavirus, school systems have failed though the students who have struggled the most during the transition have been quite familiar. Difficulty in navigating multiple aspects of the pandemic has deeply affected students who were already marginalized and underserved, for many of the same reasons these students were underserved during normal circumstances. However, unlike other times when educational systems have come under heavy scrutiny, the pandemic has uprooted many people’s commitment to maintaining tradition. With such uncertainty going forward, the current situation presents a unique chance to explore the ways in which education can be transformed as the educational system begins to establish a new sense of normalcy. As one educational advocate put it, “This is a massive opportunity to cocreate a different future for our education system, one that really honors all voices and is rooted in equity; not in a buzzword sense, but true equity so that we create something that people feel like they’ve got skin in the game. So often that’s not the case, it’s been things done to community and not with community.“

Because the traditional practices deployed in education have not always yielded positive results, and were recently displaced by the necessities of keeping pace with schooling during a pandemic, many community members feel like now is a perfect time to retool education. Critics and proponents of the traditional educational system suggest that this turmoil should be used as a catalyst to fundamentally improve that system. Over many years, the priorities of the educational system have seemed to become calcified. It seems as though the priorities that are reflected in educational institutions embody outdated values. How most major functions of the society operate has drastically changed over the past one hundred years in response to changes in social norms, technology, and knowledge creation. However, schools have seemed to remain fixed in time, largely reflecting what were innovative strategies in the industrial era. As one educational strategist noted, “This is the one thing that hasn’t changed in fifty years. Whereas businesses have changed and evolved, what we learn and how we can learn has evolved, but the school systems themselves have pretty much stayed the course with a tweak or two in regards to the technologies.”

The coronavirus has forced educational systems to expand the types of schooling available as well as to display a nimbleness that seemed impossible to many just a few years ago. Once the pandemic has been brought under control Going forward, many would like to see the school system reflect priorities that can produce better outcomes for educators and communities. Many community members feel as though the educational institutions have not set up schools in a way that serves their best interests. This disconnect between the priorities of the schools and the needs of community members is hyper-apparent to those interacting with the school from marginal positions. With significant shifts in education seeming inevitable, community members believe this may be a unique opportunity to align the priorities of the educational system with those of the community. 

Prioritize Other Ways of Evaluation

Schools must begin to evaluate themselves critically on their ability to positively affect the lives of community members. An educator observed that one of the best ways to determine what an institution privileges is to examine what they most effectively measure. Unfortunately, schools have been unable to standardize practices that produce satisfactory outcomes for many community members. One father noted that not knowing the connection between the constant evaluation of his daughter and how those metrics would help determine her future success made him reluctant to support the process. The testing regimen is not innocuous and puts heavy stress on the teachers, who pass that stress on to the students they teach. As this father put it, “If I knew this test connects to this, which connects to that, which gets them here to be successful once they graduate, then I would be receptive to it. But not knowing and just having everything pushed down, it is frustrating, and hopefully we can get some more information as we go forward in the future.”

One parent felt as though schools have prioritized creating students who have mastered compliance. Other community members remarked that it is critical to frame the priorities of the educational system in relation to the types of citizens and workers they were intended to produce. For a significant period of US history, educational institutions were responsible for producing the types of employees who could function well in industrial circumstances. However, the economy has changed dramatically since the beginnings of modern public schooling, and the needs of employers have changed accordingly. Schools today need to reflect those changing demands if they want to prepare students to be successful in the future. For many, teaching such skills as critical thinking should take precedence over evaluating how well students obey orders.

The ways in which schools themselves are evaluated perpetuate these problematic setups. Funding and prestige are tied to an individual school’s ability to produce useable metrics. This creates a cascading effect of problems. Trying to secure funding and a sound reputation is forcing schools to chase high-quality numbers as opposed to prioritizing what is best for the students. In many ways these factors incentivize schools to create the appearance of quality education as opposed to considering success as meeting the needs of students and parents. As one parent who is familiar with the back-end of educational policy commented, “Sometimes those data sets don’t represent the issue at the heart of what’s going on, or they get inflated when we take averages … we need to uncover ugly truths, and if we try to cover those truths, then we never get the solutions that hits what we really need.” 

The pressure to produce highly valued metrics makes its way from administrative departments to teachers who have to balance their job responsibilities and their desire to meet the needs of the students. One teacher noted that she felt tension between teaching the normative curriculum and wanting to prepare students with necessary information that is unrelated to mandatory testing. She recalled times she stopped following lesson plans to give students information that would serve them well as cosmopolitan citizens. She felt they needed to be aware of some of the knowledge people generally expect well-learned people to have even if it wasn’t directly related to the curriculum. However, under the current structure of evaluation, that would not make for good teaching. As she put it, ”If I was being observed in those moments by a LEAP observer, I would have been scored down.” Another educational advocate echoed that point: ”The way that they [schools] are evaluated is going to structure the way that they’re [teachers] teaching. They are evaluated on how well students produce content knowledge, so that’s going to be what they’re structuring the lessons to look like.” 

Students, especially historically marginalized students, need to have culturally competent education that helps them identify with education beyond a seemingly endless inquiry into their content acquisition. Community members suggested that schools should prioritize teaching students what they would like to or need to learn as opposed to measuring them solely against formulaic metrics. The comparison between what students are learning and what students should be learning is inherently rooted in race and class, causing marginalized students to always be seen as regressed or lacking. As one educator put it, “We’re taking on this concept of ‘whiteness’ as ‘greatness,’ and that pretty much is what the school system is. This set of kids did this well on this test, and you guys aren’t doing well enough, instead of saying who cares what they’re doing over there, you need these skills in order to be successful, and this is what we’re going to provide.”

Another educator noted that grade books have become considerable and detailed as schools have evaluated more and more in an attempt to pace themselves against district evaluations. This attention to maintaining extensive grade books has disrupted teachers’ abilities to do what they have been trained to understand as best—thinking of the students in their wholeness. When rigor, as defined by a particular type of knowledge acquisition, is highly and oftentimes exclusively valued by the educational system, that does not tell the complete story of the success of the school or the development of the individual student. It has been suggested that one of the larger disparities in quality of education is how strictly schools are disciplined by their performance in relation to predefined metrics. Schools in more affluent areas, which enroll far fewer marginalized students, seem to have the resources and autonomy to meet the needs of their students in an individualized fashion. In more traditional school settings, meeting requirements triumphs over educators’ and parents’ advocacy for more nimble and individualized criteria. One mother noted her experience with this seeming change in oversight when moving her son from one school to another: “His school has far less oversight than Smith [Elementary School] did with Black and brown students and Black and brown teachers. Every single year, if they don’t hit a marker, they’re in danger of the school being closed down. Here, in a totally different zip code, they are like, ‘You know what, why are we focusing on this, we don’t want to have homework because our kids have sports after school and we want them to stop.’ It’s so inherently racist what we even allow our kids to have access to in school and the oversight that comes to schools.”

Some parents voiced their sympathy for educators who are forced to help children develop fully with constant evaluation looming over their careers. One stated, “I honestly feel really sad for educators and admin folks who feel like they have to get a quick ROI.” He further noted that they are in a position where “this is what I’m getting measured by. I know what you’re saying about your kid is probably really real, but I can’t slow down enough to help you, and I don’t have any places where you can influence the trajectory of your own student or students like your student because we are moving at a thousand miles an hour, and we just can’t stop.” Others suggested that allowing educators, schools, students, and parents to have autonomy should not be thought of as the opposite of rigor. One educational advocate suggested quite frankly, “We need to expand what we think about rigorous education past this idea of content knowledge.”

Prioritize the Whole Child

Community members have quite often wrested with the question of the purpose of education while trying to establish new priorities. One purpose that has been offered was that schools exist to proliferate the talents of the students. One mother offered a holistic vision for schools where their purpose was to help kids develop as people and realize and love their true selves. She suggested that an overemphasis on what comes after completing school limits the possibility of schools becoming healing and transformative spaces. A parent noted that this type development is more meaningful than the data that can be collected from formal assessments. An educational activist described the tension between performance and a more human approach by commenting on changing priorities:, “Yes, we have to stay on certain types of continuum to teach, but you have to pull away and give our kids time to regroup and reset. … This thing where we were running them down, just beating kids down all day long on a schedule, and beating teachers down, does not work.” A math teacher echoed that sentiment, questioning, “Who cares if they get straight As if they are miserable.”  

If schools prioritize students’ realizing their true selves, this could have liberatory potential for those who have been traditionally marginalized by the educational system. Changing this dynamic could create the opportunity for schools not simply to reproduce the most familiar fault lines of oppression in the United States. A nonprofit leader noted that community members have become comfortable with the status quo of the educational system. He suggested that the community must summon the courage to embrace the turbulence that can be caused by pursuing structural change. As he claimed, communities need to begin “disrupting systems that have continually produced the same results over and over. My fear is that as a people we have conditioned ourselves just to be okay with it, we hope for the best but we don’t really have an idea of how to hold people accountable to disrupt systems.” 

Understanding School’s Role as a Nonneutral Social Institution

In order for this transformation to occur, schools can no longer act as if their inability to serve all students in the past has been effectively happenstance or inconsequential. Going forward, schools need to prioritize taking actions toward reconciling their past offenses with current realities. As one longtime educational activist put it, “We need honest dialogue and conversation about what has happened in the past and the crimes against our kids that have been perpetrated. Will there be an honest reckoning of the past harms so people can move forward? … In terms of priorities it’s hard to move on when there are these wounds that are still open in our communities; they’re not going to be healed if there’s not an honest reckoning.” She offered DPS’s estranged relationships with communities like Gilpin and Montbello as examples of areas where these conversations need to be taking place. 

The educational system has often presented itself as a neutral institution that had no political agenda, but some have suggested that in order for progress to occur, the system can no longer justify upholding such a facade. As one educator put it, “ Education is not neutral. I think education is political, and this is not a neutral profession, and I think the system needs to be reevaluated for who it’s serving.” Given the position of education as one of our longest-standing and most pivotal democratic institutions, it seems necessary that schools take on a stronger stance than neutrality. As one mother noted, “Education seems to be the last public democratic social institution that we have, as much as it’s still not, but there’s something there that could be. It often is the place where social ills are supposed to be fixed. There’s a lot of false connections to jobs, and economics, and just getting education, that [don’t] mean that things are going to be equitable moving forward. We could have education where the whole purpose is for students to become themselves.”

One of the ways educational institutions can preserve their status as a social institution that positively affects society is by better preparing students to succeed in life after formal schooling. Much of schooling still involves teaching out of the traditional canon, and at times educational priorities can lack relevance for the students currently attending school. Attracting educators who can help create this connection between pedagogy and students’ goals can be fostered by finding a way to recruit and retain those teachers who can connect the course material to the interest of the students. One educator emphasized that it is not as hard to get culturally competent teachers in the door as it is to keep them. 

When envisioning the future of education, community members have suggested that shifting the way they are thought of or engaged should also be prioritized. If the priority was to teach children as individuals, it would make it exponentially easier for educators to pair their schoolwork with the students’ longer-term goals. One educator noted the importance of “really figuring out who they are as an individual and then being able to have conversations … districts, teachers, and staff having a priority of knowing these kids individually and being able to talk to them and … to relate to them on their level, [which] is huge.”

Create Ties Between Education and Life Skills

Not only would this individuation help students develop personally, but it would also allow for schools to take on a more proactive role in advancing a larger societal interest. For many students, gaining the skills that can help them advance their life prospects would provide a path toward liberation, which in turn could create more buy-in from the students. One educational strategist noted that “students are attracted to this idea of entrepreneurship, especially students of color. They … envision this idea of liberation as being attached to being an entrepreneur and being able to control their own destiny.”

Furthermore, given the enormous investment students make in getting an education, it is crucial that schools provide them with the skills necessary to navigate life. As one grandmother and longtime educational activist put it, “We’re missing many of the rituals developmentally that kids need, and while we’re talking about priorities of education, we do have to think about this because of the inequities that are being exposed, and so the priorities of education also have to look at the inability to serve our kids in different types of ways and to connect with them in different ways. You’ve got to start with how are you doing?” One DPS graduate felt that his time in the district would have been more beneficial if he had graduated feeling more prepared for his next steps in life. As one faith-based mentor observed, many students get all the way through an undergraduate degree without their education feeling tethered to the nonacademic world in any meaningful way. His hope for young people is that “before they just dump in somewhere, they would have the emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence, and social intelligence to try to really figure out, ‘Where am I really going to land?’ I have a ton of kids that have gotten pushed through the system of a four-year university and get out and feel like they don’t know how to apply their degree, they don’t know what it’s for, they were kind of just moving to the next phase.”

One community member noted that there needs to be a fundamental overhaul of the way we think about success in education. As they put it, “I think our priorities should be looking at outcomes differently and potentially shifting the focus of school. I think we’re learning that most people, and students specifically, aren’t prepared for life and the navigation of that, whether that’s academic or social [or] emotional.” The world students enter is increasingly complex and is not representative of the ways the educational system has groomed them to be successful. An educational adviser put it this way: 

The shift needs to be for learning to be deeper. For learning to be more about teaching the skills they [students] need to navigate a world that’s getting increasingly more complex, and they need to be skills that feel tangible. It’s so heavy on grading … it’s not producing the types of skill sets that students are going to use later in life. I think a lot about the hidden curriculum, what are students learning from the way they experience school. When you experience school in such a regimented way, it impacts your ability to navigate the world because the world is not presented that way.

Collaborate With Community

The coronavirus pandemic has invited new opportunities for schools to no longer work on a one-size-fits-all model. New possibilities of schooling do not have to take place in the traditional classroom setting. As one parent saw it, schools need to “come together in collaboration to clearly set out a future design for the next 10 years that’s going to be systemic inclusive and well connected.” Schools need to prioritize the creation of opportunities for students to engage with course work in the way that best serves them. Interestingly, some students have struggled mightily during the shift to online learning, but others have seemed to thrive in this new environment. One educational activist noted that “kids specifically told me they’re not getting sent to the office all the time, they’re just getting their work and doing it and submitting it, so there’s a lot of reasons [online learning is] good for some kids. “

Furthermore, schools have extremely complex relationships with the communities around them and the students they serve. Going forward, educational systems need to rebuild their relationships with the surrounding communities. In this way, the pandemic has offered the possibility of a reset. As one educational volunteer noted, “It’s having the opportunity to cocreate the future of education with the community in a much broader sense; if DPS is going to do their next strategic plan, their 2030 plan, it just needs to be something that’s broad and deep in the community.” Amazingly, educational systems have seemed to keep parents from influential positions. Parents’ voices are frequently not invited and even marginalized. As one mother noted, “When I started having my kids in school, I noticed that the parent voice was frequently marginalized.” Community members hoped for a shift in the ways educational systems saw their surrounding communities, observing that “the idea being planted that parents can be partners, that parents can be resources, everywhere I hear parents say that DPS expects too little of parents, that they should be encouraging them to be more engaged.” One mother said it was nearly impossible for her to be involved in her child’s school in meaningful ways: “Even when families want to be engaged, there is like a gatekeeper, and you can’t get past the gatekeeper.”

As educational systems plan for the future and regroup from the pandemic, new priorities are necessary. Fundamentally, schools must move toward meeting the needs of communities on their own terms as opposed to grading success against a metric that is informed by high-stakes testing.